I think the thing that struck me the most about Disco Elysium is that it’s, in some sense, an RPG without combat, and it shows that RPGs without combat work fine? You’ve got your stats, your leveling up, your equipment, your quests, your skill challenges; but the skill challenges are much less frequent than the skill challenges in the vast majority of RPGs, and are done by rolling dice instead of a spatially-based combat system.

I’m actually not entirely sure what I think about that last aspect of the game, and I’ll talk more about some downsides of Disco Elysium’s choice of using dice rolling and the specific way in which they implemented that below. But, from my point of view, the dramatically decreased volume of skill challenges is all to the good: constantly fighting the same sorts of battles in the same way is very rarely interesting, and while it does provide a certain comfort factor while playing, I just don’t see it as particularly rewarding at a fundamental level. In contrast, in Disco Elysium, every skill challenge has a clear narrative hook, and is interesting both in the failure case and in the success case; at the least, it’s an interesting difference in how games are designed, but it’s also a difference with significant strengths.


Stepping back a bit, or at least sideways: the narrative is very unusual for RPGs that I play. I’m so used to RPGs having a “you are the god-chosen hero” conceipt that is, in turn, used to justify horrific levels of violence on your part; as per the above, the horrific levels of violence are missing, but while you are claimed to be a strikingly effective detective, it sure doesn’t feel that way in your lived narrative.

And the narrative concerns are just different from what I’m used to in video games? Part of that is how much of how much of what’s going on is happening at a personal level; Disco Elysium certainly isn’t unique in that regard, but it’s not the norm. Part of that is both the explicit politics and the section of the political spectrum that the game takes seriously: many more questions around economic concerns in particular than I’m used to.

And also, the authors of the game are just having fun playing around with certain kinds of ideas. As I said above, you’re not presented as being a uniquely exceptional person in your play; but, at the same time, your character is explicitly playing around with the idea of “what if I actually were awesome in this specific dimension?”. (Maybe I’m really good at singing; only one way to find out!) And those dimensions aren’t traditional gameplay dimensions, they’re more along aesthetic dimensions; and neither the game or the character are really taking super seriously the idea that you actually are awesome in that direction, they’re having fun playing around with that possibility instead. But they’re also not completely discounting the possibility of being awesome: you’re explicitly a blank slate, and part of that is being able to treat as a real possibility that you actually are surprisingly awesome in some particular way.

(Incidentally, speaking of aesthetic awesomeness: the visual art style is very unusual and quite well done. More of this sort of visual experimentation, please.)


So there’s a lot that’s unusual about the game, and a lot that I really liked about those unusual choices. Having said that, it’s also the case that, a little over halfway through the game, I ran into a pretty rough patch.

Basically, I got a situation where, on the quests that I was aware of, I knew of some skill checks that would help me make progress; but for each of those skill checks, either I’d failed at them recently enough that the skill checks were locked, or else the skill check was at a low enough success probability that I didn’t want to try them. (I feel like I did do save reloading to make it past skill check failures in a couple of places, but in general I tried to avoid that.)

I didn’t feel like I was really blocked there: my guess was that, if I poked around, I’d find more ways to make progress, either in the quests I already knew about or in discovering new quests. But the problem with that was that the game was literally taking 90 seconds or more every time I did an area transition.

So if I wanted to, say, poke around in a building, then it would be 90 seconds to enter the building, 90 seconds to get out of the entry area of the building, 90 seconds to get to another floor of the building, and so forth; if you then add up the need to retrace my steps, it would easily take over 5 minutes and sometimes close to 10 minutes to explore a single building. Which is bad but workable if you’re exploring a building that’s new to you or that you’re going through for a specific reason, because you’re spending 5 minutes in transitions and 5 minutes going through dialogues and learning new things, that’s acceptable. But if you’re going into a building just because you think there’s something in the world you need to explore but don’t know where it is, and if you have to do that for five separate buildings, then pretty easily it can add up to spending half an hour where you haven’t seen anything new and where 25 minutes of that half hour is spent in loading screens.

This specific issue did get somewhat better (30 second transitions instead of 90 second transitions) after some random console update forced me to relaunch the game; I guess something had built up in memory in a bad way or something? Still, it really brought home to me the importance of that sort of quality of life issue.


But there’s also an issue there other than the quality of life issue. Unless I’m missing something, it really is possible to get into a soft locked state in Disco Elysium in a way that isn’t possible in traditional RPGs, and also in a way that different from the way you can get locked if you, say, can’t figure out puzzles in a point-and-click adventure game.

Because, in a traditional RPG, if a key battle is too hard for you, there’s almost always a way to grind for experience; not the best experience, and I wish RPGs had a lot less grinding, but at least it lets you make it past a bad spot / lack of skill. In Disco Elysium, in contrast, there’s no way to grind: unless I’m missing something, there is simply a limited pool of XP available in the game. And if you combine this with randomized dice rolls to make it past skill check puzzle gates plus the fact that those skill checks then get locked until you level up the skill in question (or get more relevant information through a dialogue tree or something), that means that, if you’re unlucky, you haven’t been keeping a reserve of skill points that you can use to level up in an emergency, and you’ve exhausted all of the ways to get XP that you know of, then your choices are either: 1) save scum; 2) look up a walkthrough; or 3) exhaustively search the entire map hoping you can find enough XP to bring you up a level. (And then hoping that the dice do better next time!)

This isn’t a great set of choices. Of those three, I would normally prefer the exhaustive search; but, as noted, the exhaustive search was particularly unpleasant for me; eventually, I gave up the search and did a mixture of the other two approaches to get past the worst of this. I’m not going to say that I’ve got a better alternative that avoids this soft lock possibility entirely, because I can see how design constraints led to those choices, and if the developers had made different choices, it would be a quite different game and a much less interesting one. Still, it meant that I wasn’t having much fun with the game for an evening or two.


I was also surprised by the game’s Thought Cabinet. When leveling up, instead of leveling up one of your (many!) stats, you can equip thoughts that you’ve unlocked; these require some research time, during which they generally have a negative side effect, but once the research is completed, they give you some sort of bonus. (Though perhaps one that still combines with negative aspects.)

Which is good: it gives a bit of flavor to the game, and the process of unlocking them also responds to the flavor that you bring to the game in terms of how you respond to various prompts. And it’s kind of interesting to have a way to use your skill points where you don’t know in advance what’s going to come out of that choice: it’s a pretty different feel from choosing which ability to unlock in a traditional RPG.

I was a little taken aback to realize that, to get rid of one of these thoughts, you also have to spend a skill point to get rid of it. When playing the game, that felt needlessly punitive to me: skill points aren’t that cheap to come by (with real consequences to that scarcity, as I discussed above), so having to spend two skill points to try out and then reject a thought felt like it discouraged experimentation in a way that I didn’t like?

Typing this up, though, I realize that the above analysis is incorrect: the point that you spend to equip the thought isn’t actually to equip that thought, it’s to open up a slot in your thought cabinet. And, if you get rid of the thought, the slot remains open. (At least I’m pretty sure it does; skimming the wiki gives that impression.) So you’re not back to where you started after spending the second skill point: you can immediately equip another thought for free.

And that choice feels right to me. If you could unequip thoughts for free, then you’d switch between thoughts like you can switch between items of clothing, to get whatever local benefits you want. That would be okay, I guess, but it would reduce the metaphorical impact of the thoughts, it would mean that the mechanical effect of thoughts was too similar to the mechanical effect of clothing, and it would encourage (or at least support) a completionist style of play where you try out as many thoughts as possible in a single playthrough.

Whereas, if there’s a cost to change your thoughts, then that feeds into a way of thinking about the game where you’re using the thoughts to shape your character or express something about the character. So your character is likely to stick with thoughts once they have them, unless a specific thought comes with a strong negative consequence; and while I expected to be frustrated when I hit the cap of thoughts that I could store at once in my thought cabinet, in practice when I hit that I was approaching the endgame anyways, and was happy to move on. So the developers sized things out nicely: putting in a constraint, but not in a way that really grated, just in a way that expressed what they want out of the game.

(Incidentally, while I don’t have any immediate plans to replay the game, I am hoping that Liesl decides to give it a try. That would let me see what some of the other thoughts look like, and to also get an appreciation for how the game feels if you choose a different set of starter stats.)


Anyways: very good game, other than the load times. I’m glad it’s exploring a different part of the mechanical game space than I’m used to; I’m glad it’s exploring a different part of the narrative game space than I’m used to; and the visual style is a bonus. It’s refreshing to see a game that is doing its own thing, and carrying that off in a well-thought-out fashion.

Post Revisions:

This post has not been revised since publication.